>Discovery: Uncovering the Precious Cross… and the Sunken Sensations of a Distant Past

>Sorry about the long title, but I was having difficulty getting started this morning. I woke up with the first paragraph of another chapter of a book on my mind. The paragraph I struggled with for about an hour yesterday. Dinty’s Moore’s words about the importance of discovery (see my post from Monday about the CNF Conference) were ringing in my ears. My sweet husband had brought my first cup of coffee to my bedside table, but I let it get cold as I made my way to my icon corner in the dining room to pray. And there it was, on my Orthodox Calendar: March 6: The Uncovering of the Precious Cross and the Precious Nails by the Empress Helen in Jerusalem .

Saint Helen was the mother of Constantine the Great. They began to rebuild Jerusalem in the fourth century. They especially wanted to build a church at the site of the Lord’s Resurrection. After leveling the pagan temple of Venus, they found Golgotha, the place of the Lord’s crucifixion. Nearby were three crosses and four nails, the nails used in the crucifixion.

The problem was, how could they discover which cross was the one Jesus was crucified on? Patriarch Macarius came to Helen’s aid by ordering that the body of a dead man be placed on each of the three crosses, one at a time. Finally, when placed on the third cross, the man came back to life. Yes. This really happened. And by this miracle they discovered the true cross, on March 6, 326.

Each time I read a truly gripping creative nonfiction book, like the works of Anne Lamott or Haven Kimmel, I find myself saying, “Oh, but their lives are so much more interesting than mine! What do I have to write about?” I’m learning that I’m asking the wrong question. That instead, I need to be asking myself how can I discover the treasures that are buried in my life, and in lives around me?

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes in his small volume, Letters to a Young Poet:

If your everyday life appears to be unworthy subject matter, do not complain to life. Complain to yourself. Lament that you are not poet enough to call up its wealth. For the creative artist there is no poverty—nothing is insignificant or unimportant. Even if you were in a prison whose walls would shut out from your senses the sounds of the outer world, would you not then still have your childhood, this precious wealth, this treasure house of memories? Direct your attention to that. Attempt to resurrect these sunken sensations of a distant past. Your will gain assuredness. Your aloneness will expand and will become your home, greeting you like the quiet dawn. Outer tumult will pass it by from afar…. Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth. At its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must write.

That’s one level of discovery. But the discovery I learned about at the Creative Nonfiction Workshop last weekend continues into everything you write. My fellow students’ words are ringing in my ears this morning (the ones who critiqued my work at the workshops):

Your work is too concrete. You don’t leave enough for the reader to discover. You tone is too confident, as though you yourself have nothing left to discover. We want to know how you felt, as narrator, as author, as main character, at every turn in the story.

So I returned home to Memphis to try to revise and write my stories with this spirit of discovery. And I’m learning (again, as I already knew this about myself) what a control-freak I am. How hard it is to let go and let the work teach me, as the writer Madeleine L’Engle often said:

A writer is a dis-coverer: He takes inventory of what is already there. He does not create ex-nihilo. He uses what has made itself known to him in all his lie, and he uses this material in the most concrete manner possible. For, as Henry James says, the job of the *novelist is to render, not to report; to show, not to tell. And this rendering, this showing, depends on all the people the writer has ever known—family, friends, people met at airports…. They all leave their imprint on the creative subconscious mind of the writer.

*I might add that these same principles apply to the writer of creative non-fiction, whose job it is to write non-fiction in a literary style. L’Engle wrote both fiction and non-fiction, and throughout all of her work I saw this element of discovery… of herself, and her characters, whether real or imagined, being alive. As she explains in Madeleine L’Engle, Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life:

I can only affirm that the people in my stories have as complete and free a life of their own as do my family and friends; to the extent that they become alive for the reader, the story has succeeded….The creative-below-the-surface mind will do the underwater work and send the character up to the surface when needed. It’s a mysterious act of collaboration between intellect and intuition.

L’Engle talks a lot about listening. So did Eudora Welty. When I saw this quote by her on the walls of the room in the journalism building at Ole Miss where I was waiting to pitch my book ideas to editors and agents this past Saturday, something clicked:

Back to L’Engle:

There are creative ideas out there, and we are meant to be finely tuned receivers. Most of the time we’ve lost our ability to receive, and we hear static. But every once in a while we can pick it up. And what the artist does is keep tuning the receiver so that the message comes in more and more clearly. And that’s one reason I do not dominate or manipulate the work any more than I want to dominate or manipulate my friends or my children or my family, because that is destructive, not creative.

Wow. One line in a prayer I often pray in the morning (written by Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow) goes like this:

Bless my association with all who surround me…. Teach me to act firmly and wisely without embittering and embarrassing others…. Teach me to pray. Pray yourself in me.

Prayer isn’t all that different from writing, if you listen to the words of Rilke and L’Engle… who both talk about going inside and sending the character up to the surface. Just like prayer, it seems that writing (or any kind of artistic creation) is indeed, as L’Engle says, a “mysterious act of collaboration between intellect and intuition.”

So here I go, back to the opening paragraph of the next chapter of that book… God help me to listen to the work, rather than trying to dominate or manipulate it. And as Metropolitan Philaret said, “In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings.”

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